The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man — Jeffrey Frank
The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man — Jeffrey Frank
After almost 30 years, new information has been uncovered … Journalist Jeffrey Frank shares a full account of Harry S. Truman’s fascinating presidency in his latest book. It was a term marked by sorrow, complexity, and hope. So, host Charles Mizrahi sat down with Frank to discuss how Truman steered our great country through one of the most turbulent periods in American history.
- An Introduction to Jeffrey Frank (00:00:00)
- An Eventful Presidency (00:10:48)
- From Lowest to Greatness (00:17:19)
- A New Take (00:21:53)
- Devoted Family Man (00:30:26)
- Across the Isles (00:31:46)
Jeffrey Frank knows Washington and politics inside and out. As a journalist and author, he’s dug deep and uncovered untold stories about some of history’s most notable political figures. Previously, Frank served as a senior editor at The New Yorker and deputy editor of The Washington Post’s Outlook section. Today, he contributes works to several publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker — among others.
Before You Leave:
JEFFREY FRANK: Here’s someone who really studied the history and really thought about the welfare of the country. He really saw one of the duties of a politician was to make lives better for his fellow man and for his fellow Americans.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: My guest today is Jeffrey Frank. Jeffrey was a senior editor at The New Yorker, the deputy editor of The Washington Post Outlook Section and a prolific author. His latest book is The Trials of Harry Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945-1953. His book is the first full account of the Truman presidency in nearly 30 years, recounting how ordinary men met the extraordinary challenge of leading America through the pivotal years of the mid-twentieth century. I recently sat down with Jeffrey, and we talked about how Truman steered our country through one of the most turbulent periods in American history, marked by victory in wars against Germany and Japan, the first use of an atomic weapon, the beginning of the Cold War and a whole lot more.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Jeff, thanks so much for being on the show and I’ve looked forward to speaking to you since we spoke last week. Folks, the name of the book is The Trials of Harry S. Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945-1953. Jeff, welcome to the show.
JEFFREY FRANK: Thank you, Charles. Happy to be there or here.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: All right. So, you know, I’ve read Harry Truman’s A Biography by McCullough. Hmm. David McCullough. I can’t believe when you told me it’s 30 years old, 1992. I went home and just double checked that. And I it’s literally I read it felt like yesterday in the past 30 years, there hasn’t been any other Harry Truman biography that filled the niche that you feel, you felt, you filled here.
JEFFREY FRANK: They’ve been there, but under Truman sort of books in the last 30 years. Nothing. David McCullough, did you know a cradle to grave book? And there was a couple of more like that guy named Robert Farrell, who is a very, very scholarly a very scholarly book about Truman. He’s done many books about Drew, and he’s an admirable work. He wrote about sort of all about Truman and Pendergrass and so on. But what I did was something I was trying to write a biography of a presidency, and that hasn’t been done for at least 30 years. So just the start of his presidency. And it was a really interesting presidency, as you know.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Okay. So, you basically said you’re a journalist, right? You’re not a historian.
JEFFREY FRANK: I would I would argue that. Yes, I would argue that, but I would argue that most great histories that have been written by journalists.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: McCullough wasn’t.
JEFFREY FRANK: Transactional. I’m sorry. Go ahead.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: McCullough wasn’t trained as a historian and writes fantastic.
JEFFREY FRANK: He was journalist. Exactly.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. Okay. So, we’re going to let that. But I just wanted to bring that up there because you took a different view. You wrote and I read this book. You wrote it more as a peek into the life of Truman. You could tell that one was a journalist when one read the book. I just had that feeling.
JEFFREY FRANK: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, I don’t know the difference. What a journalist I think brings to it is curiosity doesn’t stop a journalist is tends to sort of wants to go to the source. Where do you where was that from? If you read if you read someone else’s book, they usually say, well, where did you get that from? You go into and you go into it. I found in my own case, I’m not you know, I want to sort of brag about things. I found myself going again and again to the archives in Independence. What was Congress, Clemson, South Carolina for the James Francis Burns archives. And then traveling. I had to go to Berlin. I had to go to Korea because the Korean War is such an important part of part of his of his presidency. So, this so it isn’t it isn’t just a question of — these things are deeply researched. And I think journalists tend to be real serious researchers because they’re journalists. They want to get the facts right. And they tend not to outsource things as academics often do.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right. So why was it 70 years or so from Truman? It’s going to be 70 years. What do I care? Why does the what does the American public care so much? Or, you know, you could have picked any president to write about. Why do they care so much about Truman and what happened during his presidency?
JEFFREY FRANK: I would say because so much of it is still with us today, the question is that the issues that Truman dealt with 70 years ago, they’re still here. For example, the of the borders in Eastern Europe. Stalin considered Poland a part of Russia, not a part of Russia. They considered it indistinguishable from Russia in terms of its defense for Stalin, every sort of the German invasion that came through Poland. And that’s not unlike the way I think Putin tends to see Ukraine is not I mean he’s Stalin was would have gone to war over Poland had there been anything like it. Had we anyway had had had there been a threat. And then Naito is still with us today. An important part of the Western defense against what was the Soviet Union and threatening to become again the Soviet Union. The United Nations is still with us. And the creation of Israel is still with us. The questions that the issues that people saw as problems in the future, they’re still here. People like James Forrestal and Acheson and Marshall, they saw they saw huge problems coming with the creation of Israel. I think Truman made the right decision. But he also but I don’t think people saw that there was going to be a huge, huge they couldn’t have imagined a sort of a gulf between east and west. The oil states and in the Middle East. That happened. But they saw it happening. James Forrestal, the secretary of defense, basically said we’re dependent on oil to a huge extent. And we didn’t have that sort of independence we have today with energy. So, all these issues are here. There are many more issues that are still with us. The race problem is still with us. So, that’s why we care. And a lot of these things sort of took shape in the Truman era, and they haven’t gone away.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Okay. So here you have a guy. And what always fascinated me about Truman is how ordinary he was in every aspect. Here’s a guy who’s small. He’s about 5’9 or so. He weighs, what, about 140 pounds or so?
JEFFREY FRANK: He kept his weight. Yeah.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, something was about there. I remember reading some words about. I forget exactly what his weight was, but. And I don’t know why we would you remember that. But all right, so say he’s five eight, five, nine. I don’t know what the thing was. Weighed 167 pounds. That was it. Yeah. Okay. So, he’s a small, slight guy and he is pretty much unknown. You know, when Roosevelt picks him, FDR picks him. What do they meet once or twice?
JEFFREY FRANK: Yeah, let me just say one thing, by the way, they were all they were all kind of short. Truman and Stalin and Churchill were all kind of the same size. Stalin may be a little bit shorter than Churchill. And Churchill and Truman were about the same height. So, Truman was very conscious of that. It was always sensitive about it.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You’re 100% right. I think Churchill was even smaller than Truman.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I think was five, five, five, six. I don’t know what.
JEFFREY FRANK: We’re all about this. They’re all about the same height. You see pictures of them in at Potsdam. You see these three short guys.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, just amazing. But he’s in the shadow of FDR, whose aristocracy who led this country from 1933, from the midst from the depths of the Depression to almost the one-yard line right before winning a World War II. And you have this guy, Truman, not well known. FDR kept him at bay. And all of a sudden, just a heartbeat, literally a heartbeat. He’s whisked away from the Senate floor. I think he was on the Senate floor that day, they were playing cards or drinking. I forgot.
JEFFREY FRANK: They’ve been gone. They have gone to actually to the Board of Education at Sam Rayburn’s office. You’re having a having a bourbon in brass water and…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: He’s having a drink. Right. And Sam Rayburn’s office whisked away, come up and he says it felt like the stars, the moon, the whole galaxy, fell on his shoulders. And the description of the other sitting in the room who were all FDR people looked at and said, this small, slight guy is going to be president? The commander in chief? The head of the free world? It was just such a disconnect.
JEFFREY FRANK: Yeah. I mean, they were stunned. Truman was stunned. And the people in the cabinet then were stunned. And one of them, Frances Perkins, was weeping and so on. The death of Roosevelt was a shock. I mean, it was very much like the death of the murder of President Kennedy. I mean, the country just had found it very hard to absorb it. People were, you know, their stories of government workers getting it, getting onto the elevator and getting off of the wrong floor. People were completely disoriented. Truman was not the worst person that he could have picked. And far from it. He had begun to make a name for himself in the Senate. He had created and then chaired what was called the Truman Committee, which was sort of very diligent about finding waste and fraud in the in the defense industry. This was before the war. And then he was on the cover of Time magazine as someone who’d saved millions of dollars for the country. So, he was it was not a complete lie, not Roosevelt. But Roosevelt didn’t know him well. They had one lunch after the convention and before the election.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I never knew him. And there were people who said he spent more time in, you know, staring at the back of a horse’s ass than just a few years back. He was a farmer. This guy was as average as can be. I think the first house he ever lived it on his own was the White House. He lived with his mother in law, I believe.
JEFFREY FRANK: Yeah, it was. It was their house. It was. But yes, it was his mother in law in independence. It became the Truman house. It was his wife’s mother’s house.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It wasn’t his, he didn’t buy it. It wasn’t his. Here was a guy who was just farming. And just a few years back, he had a haberdashery that failed. He was really not what you would say — what the country or people thought the country needed at such a critical time in history.
JEFFREY FRANK: That’s true. How many people felt that way and that feeling didn’t go away for possibly ever. But it certainly went away. Perhaps. But then, of course, Truman won one an election in 1948, but the 1946 midterms were a sign of that. The Democrats lost Congress for the first time since 1928. And that was on Truman. People said that Truman should resign, and there were Democrats who said Truman should resign.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: His own party.
JEFFREY FRANK: It was a vote of no confidence.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, let me just list down a few things that happened during his presidency, which many people, many Americans who don’t study history have no idea the tumultuous period in our country, in the world, I should say. Just in the span of, what, 1945 to 1953. So, you’re talking 18 plus years. Remember, he comes in on the death of a president, which is a terrible position to be in, especially a president like FDR, who was larger than life in going three terms already. So, FDR was a master at the political game as well as being a commander in chief. So, Truman comes in and I’m just going to read these rather quickly. He drops the Atomic Bomb on Japan, Leads to V-J Day. Victory over Japan. Ends World War II. Marshall Plan gives billions of dollars in economic and humanitarian aid to nations of Europe. Then, he has the Korean Peninsula, the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. He fires General Douglas MacArthur, the commander, in a very public way. And here was a beloved general. He integrates the armed forces, which was amazing at the time. And he also supports Black legislation in Congress. He was a friend of the new nation of Israel, supports them 11 minutes after Israel is declared its own state against the wishes of the State Department and against the wishes of Marshall, George Marshall, as well.
JEFFREY FRANK: He was secretary of state.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: But here was a guy who was friendly with him. I shouldn’t say friendly. He revered Marshall.
JEFFREY FRANK: Truman thought he was one of the great ones of our age. Or so he put it.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And I remember reading it was in Europe. I remembers I think it was McCullough’s book when he gives a toast to Marshall, he has tears in his eyes as to what a great man he is. And he saved millions from starvation in Europe.
JEFFREY FRANK: Yeah, and I found something that found something new, which was simply in one of Marshall’s interviews with Forrest POGUE, he said, Well, I could get Truman to do anything. And then, he said, but I didn’t. He kind of knew he shouldn’t.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah.
JEFFREY FRANK: But others realized that he had enormous power. Israel was the one case where he didn’t quite succeed. And it was one case later on, which I can talk about later on in the ’48 election, where Truman went ahead and acted on his own without telling Marshall. And then it became sort of an embarrassment.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right. Let me continue on. So, he has loyalty also issued for federal employees in the Red Scare in the McCarthy Era. Truman beats Thomas Dewey and underdog election famous paper holds up with Dewey. And Truman wins and it was an amazing come from behind victory. And NATO was formed during Truman’s tenure as President of the United States. So, here is a span of time in history where everything was thrown on this man’s desk to the point where he had to make decisions. And he’s a simple guy, spoke simply and plainly, didn’t go to college, as you pointed out. So, he’s had an inferiority complex but read amazing. He had such a broad range of knowledge. And my question that I want to discuss with you is how does an ordinary man become extraordinary for a brief span of time when the nation and the world needed him?
JEFFREY FRANK: Well, you say he was a simple man, but that was his. He appeared to be a simple man. He was he was a complicated guy, but he hid it behind this sort of this old sort of Missouri simplicity. And he was he was also a really good student. He took the job seriously. He studied and studied and went through briefing papers. An example of this was, here’s a guy who knew nothing about foreign affairs. So, several days after he became president, Averell Harriman, who was the ambassador to Russia, came rushing over to Washington, and said he was really he’d already begun to really distrust Joseph Stalin. And he warned Truman that Stalin was going to keep his word in terms of respecting the government of Poland. By that time, Truman had read all the briefing papers. He was completely up to speed. And so, he was so that that kind of for a lot. But he also left out the also that the United Nations was also by the truth of it, and he was a big supporter of the UN. So yeah, I bet he was. So, he became a guy that really jumped into this job. And I think and I think he they didn’t bend. He couldn’t be pushed around. He could be wrong. And he made some decisions that maybe weren’t all that wise. But he did it. But he was firm. He was clear. And he stood up like a guy that believed what he said. And it also counted for a lot. I think it remains to today that the respect he had for his own country, for his own country’s history. He loved the Constitution. He was in love with the Constitution. And that sort of quality stayed with him and made him a better man than we might have seen at the time. But that enhanced the way he looked at his own job.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, he leaves the presidency. And there was a book I read, Bess and Harry’s Amazing Adventure. Something to that extend.
JEFFREY FRANK: Yeah that was fun.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Just a fascinating book where he gets into a car with Bess. There was no Secret Service, and at that time, there was no presidential pension. So, he was selling. He had to sell farmland. And here he was getting I think he was offered $100,000 for a car manufacturer, but he did not believe that the office of the presidency was for sale. And it’s such a joke today where a president leaves office and goes on the speaking circuit and makes millions. But here was a guy who wasn’t wealthy by far. And he goes out and he takes this trip to New York to visit his daughter. And people come up to him when he stops at restaurants and road stops. It’s just brilliant. I just enjoy the social aspect of it.
JEFFREY FRANK: He was stopped by cop for speeding I believe.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: At Bess yells at him. I told him to stop speeding. And those days the roads were scary, you know, they were they were dirt roads. And what happened right after right after he leaves office where his popularity is not so high. It’s pretty low, in fact. Right?
JEFFREY FRANK: Mhm.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Why does history start to see as a time goes on — why do they start seeing the greatness of Truman so many years later? After his after he leaves the presidency, I think they rank him as one of the lowest — in pretty much in the low category. No?
JEFFREY FRANK: I don’t know. I mean, those things are in such flux, but. Yeah, true. I mean. Yeah, but it’s true what he left. But it’s interesting. When he left the presidency that the public his estimation had been public opinion was pretty low. But historians, some of them were already — Commodore had written the piece in Look magazine in 1951, a year before he left, saying, look, he’s by the way, you also he also he was also and all these scandals that followed him of minor scandals, both by today’s standards, you know, getting someone was giving out his chief aide was giving deep freezes to everyone, which was a rare commodity after little after the war. The Bureau of Internal Revenue was deeply immersed in scandal, bribery and so on. This wasn’t Truman’s fault, but what Truman’s appointees were doing it. But what said was, here’s a guy. Yeah, these things are all going on. But we should look at things that were accomplished. You mentioned the Marshall Plan. He mentioned the all these big things that happened under his presidency. And they said that’s what’s going to be remembered. And then that’s what has been remembered. And Truman himself was not a very imposing figure. If you watch him on YouTube or something — on some of these clips on TV and so on — he doesn’t seem like someone who fills the room to use today’s language. But his deeds stole the room. And I think that’s what counts.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You know, his moral clarity, you know. Well, I wouldn’t go that far. Let me rephrase. His decisiveness. You knew where you stood. You knew where he stood, and you knew where the country stood. And especially in these times where it’s like stepping on a banana peel, you know, politicians flip flop. So quickly. Administrations walk back at certain statements. And here you had a guy where literally he creates the buck stops here.
JEFFREY FRANK: The buck stops here the rich, poor brother. By the way that plaque nowhere to be found. It was not in his office. But he became associated with it. And, yeah, he. He owned up to it. He owned up to everything he was. And his he made what some of us who use the word jump decisions, which were decisions basically made on the spur of the moment. And I mean, some of them were sort of inevitable or unavoidable. I mean, even the dropping the atomic bomb was it was well, I wouldn’t even call it a decision he or he gave the order. But it was that that that question was pretty well going to have that question was already in motion.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right. So, looking through the lens of history and especially with the amazing research that you did here with the journals, like what could present day politicians? I don’t care what side of the isle you’re on, you’re on the Democrat-Republican. Doesn’t matter to me. What can they learn? What lessons can they learn from Truman in his presidency?
JEFFREY FRANK: By the way, I’ve been on both sides of the aisle politically, so I can sort of speak in the sense of I mean, I’m not an ideologue. I think they can learn from here’s someone who really studied the history and really thought about the welfare of the country. He really saw one of the duties of a politician was to make lives better for his fellow man and for his fellow Americans. It’s interesting. I mean, he was he was not a big New Deal rebel. And he didn’t do a lot of make a lot of social programs. But there were some incremental changes in Social Security. But one thing he really tried he tried several times to get national health insurance for the country. He tried to he was aware that that was something Roosevelt hadn’t done. I could do that, he said to himself when he didn’t do it. But he tried. He tried seriously. And he worked within a few months after taking office, he tried it. He tried again. And he tried again in 47, which after the after losing Congress, he lost the election. He tried again in 1852, and the American Medical Association spent millions of dollars to defeat it. But that that that eventually became when Lyndon Johnson signed the Medicare bill, he came out to Independence, Missouri, and invited Truman and his wife Bess to sit next to him. And he gave them Medicare card number one in Medicare. And then at Truman’s last days, he was in the hospital in Kansas City, and Medicare paid for his room and $59 a day.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Amazing. Absolutely amazing. You know, you said there was a 30-year gap between McCullough’s book and your book. And when I spoke to you last week, we had a call just go over a few things. I just wanted to thank you for coming on the show and talk about your book. You mention something to me and you said that. I said, why do you need another book? You said, Well, there’s so much information that has come out in the past 30 years from personal archives, from government archives. What are some of those things that if a reader would read this book, they would say, well, I did not know that?
JEFFREY FRANK: One thing that particularly engaged me was the was the Korean War. There’s this that’s a there’s a lot about the Korean War that we still we still don’t know a lot about the Korean War. But who how did it start? Why did start what was what was Stalin’s role in? Well, I mean, and what was the role of Zhou Enlai and Mao Tse-Tung in getting us into it? And these questions are still some of them are still open to questions, but some of them we can sort of answer. Now, for example, we didn’t know. We now know it’s pretty clear now that the Chinese would not have gotten into the war as they had in the in a later fall of 1950, had not had shown or had this intelligence it was coming from to through India to us from China, saying, don’t cross the 38th parallel. That was a sort of dividing line between North Korea and South Korea. And that was and if that hadn’t happened, who knows? The war would never have gone. I don’t think the world never would ever have gone. It just gone so bad. The war you know, the war began. As you know, the war began after that after North Korea invaded the South in late June 1950. And I don’t think Truman had much fairly had much choice the first place the United Nations had to, he felt it was a duty to defend a nation that was being under attack. And so and so the United States responded. And Truman ordered the concert to send troops, and it got allies involved in it. But the world could have sort of turned around very quickly afterward when MacArthur had this sort of brilliant invasion of Inchon, which is about 30 miles from Seoul, and the war turned around at one point earlier in the war, the North had controlled 90% of Korea. After Inchon, the North was in retreat, and the war could have could have ended and could have ended, in my view. And but then. But then. But true. And let MacArthur because I thought that as the North had wanted to unify the country under his government because that. Well, he could unify the. Under our government. I began to think about it in terms of Gulf War I and Gulf War to Gulf War II was a big success in that George W Bush was determined to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait. That was felt as a success. It pushed them out of the war ended. Gulf War two was a regime change. And then and as we know how that ended or never or never again.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: We don’t do well with regime change. We do well with, you know, and George and George H.W. understood that, I think brilliantly that, you know, it was keep the objective, simple and something we can accomplish. And once it’s done, stop and everyone was yelling, why don’t you go for regime change? I remember at the time was 1990. It was a summer, July of 1991. Did you go for regime change, get rid of Saddam Hussein? Look, he was a diplomat. He understood he had a broader perspective of history. And, you know, it’s easier said than done. It just doesn’t work out. Or if it does work. Let me rephrase. It’s very, very messy. Very messy.
JEFFREY FRANK: I think that’s exactly right. And the Korean War turned into Gulf War two.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, that’s good.
JEFFREY FRANK: I never thought of that. Yeah. Yeah. 37, 37,000 Americans died. And there wasn’t the sort of reaction here as they had been during Vietnam because, well, they’ve never been a war like this. And this other world college protests, even though people were being drafted, there was and there was and there was there was just nothing there. Like probably a million Chinese died, hundreds of thousands of Koreans, North and South. And it was it was. And then furthermore, we, the United States and the Allies, literally, just because of a cause, in order to destroy, we destroyed North Korea. We burned and they bombed almost every little village and township. And that that was left was a lot of resentment. Bye. Bye. The great leader of North Korea and of course, his grandson is now the leader of North Korea. And they hate us. Yeah, in a way that the Vietnamese don’t hate us. The Vietnamese hate the French of, but they don’t hate us because that wasn’t our war. This Korea became our war, and they hate us for it.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I had an uncle who passed away a few years back who was a marine in the Korean War. And he told me he used to say the conditions of that war were just brutal. It was brutally hot in the summer and terrifyingly cold in the winter. It was the terrain was difficult. It was really, really a terrible, terrible war.
JEFFREY FRANK: And your attitude was, well, yeah, I’m sorry.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: No, no, continue.
JEFFREY FRANK: No, no. When you fly over the way you fly over, they should use you. Yeah, you can see. How could they ever, ever fight a war there? There was some great sort of oral histories about the war. One of John McCain’s favorite books is a book called This Kind of War, which is wonderful. It’s still in print. And I sort of tell you, gives you a picture of that war. It’s really something. And it was a huge tragedy for them and for us.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You know, history could have been so different. But, you know, it is what it is. So. Well, what when you the Truman the person. Truman the man. Because I’ve read some things which I found so interesting in your book is how, you know, look, it’s human nature. We all kind of have our own way of filling in the blanks and our memory of the way things happened. But you point out several times, and I applaud you for doing that, where it seems that not only flip flops, but he remembers a different history. I mean, it’s not even close to what actually happened. He fabricates things. He builds up events that might not have taken place. But in his own mind, he’s been determined that these things did happen.
JEFFREY FRANK: Yeah. I think that’s a that’s a sort of his very human side. For example, he had his first meeting with Jonathon, the Soviet foreign minister, and it was not a friendly conversation. But it was it was sort of tough, tough diplomacy offered mostly about Poland and the government of Poland. Later on Truman remember I hit him right in the left to the letter. That’s not the way anyone in the room did. Not did not see it. Do not see it that way. And he would remember him. He recalled having conversations with Roosevelt where they would discuss history. That never happened. But he so wanted it to happen. He sort of like Roosevelt’s approval that he made it in his mind. It began to happen, I think that’s a very human thing. A lot of a lot of people do it. I probably done it. I probably done that sort of thing, too. I’m not aware of it, but I know.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Science tells us that we do fill in the blanks. Our brains do not like blank spaces. We fill it in. But you know, when you look at some of these possible events, like with Truman speaking with Roosevelt, you know, anyone could just take a step back and say that could never have happened. You know, Truman was not only here, Roosevelt was here. He never talked in that way. He would never deal with him that way. The confidence, it’s just a funny thing. But what I find so interesting, really not interesting, I should say I should only rephrase. Really admirable is his relationship with his wife. It was it, you know, in a Washington plagued with scandal, with womanizing, this man was about as straitlaced as you can get.
JEFFREY FRANK: Oh, I can’t. Yes, I couldn’t. You know, he was it fell in love with him because he was very I mean, if he first noticed his wife best when he when they were seven years old, he remember this this golden girl. And he and he never got over her and never got over her. And he went after her and he courted her for years. And then before he went to he went to war in World War I, he went to south of France. And it wasn’t until after that because he did, he said, I’m not going to come home a cripple and burden you with that after the war. That’s you know, that’s when they get to be married and then. So it was I it was it was a completely he was totally devoted to her. And one of the few places in the book where the mean looked, where they had a real squabble. It was very painful and true and true. And he had to go home for Christmas. I think he had to go back to Washington. This job, took it out of him. And best, best, best, really scared of him for that. And that was it that hurt him. And it really and he probably wrote a letter to her where he really let loose because he because he we know that he called his daughter Margaret and said, go to the post office and that, you know.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: When you know, with the account that you put in the book, as I’m reading this, I’m saying, my gosh, this poor guy, you know, you didn’t do it justice. Just read the book, you folks. He did it justice in the book. Truman goes home during a storm where it’s dangerous for planes to fly. He finally pushes this plane. They say, Mr. President, you cannot fly in this weather. And he pushes through, takes him 6 hours through thunderstorms, through snow storms. Lands in Missouri goes in and Bess greets him, like, what the heck? So you came home now, like, we like he was he was shocked, you know, it was it was something, you know, just. Wow.
JEFFREY FRANK: You told it better. Yes, you told it better than I did just now. Yeah, it’s in the book. There’s those that that plane flight was really dangerous. I mean, they didn’t want to. I mean, he had a push. They had to push the, you know, the military to fly him home. And actually, I think a couple of editorials in The Times scolded him for taking a chance like that.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. You know, when I was reading it, I never knew about that. And when you’re reading this and you get, you know, people who read this have to remember, I’m sure they do that this was a time where air travel was not as safe as it is today and that many people died in plane crashes, especially. And the equipment, the weather equipment was nowhere near where it is today and the safety equipment and all these things. And he pushed forward to see her. I think it was one day just to stop, turn around and come back. And she I don’t know what I don’t I don’t recall. Please tell me what you she responded to him, but it was something to the effect of now you come home? Or something to that effect.
JEFFREY FRANK: I don’t have it in front of me. Yeah, but it’s, it’s basically that and basically he said, you made me feel like, like dirt. And it was it was it was a very, very rough. And he hurt. He came back to us deeply, deeply depressed by the whole experience. But that also shows how devoted he was to her, that he would that he would do this just to be just have one day of Christmas in Missouri.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. You know, it’s so admirable that he wrote to her and he expressed his life, which is like, I would think and you know, better, John Adams and his wife kind of relationship where Adams would ask his wife, Abigail, for ideas and thoughts and bounce ideas as an equal a true and does that with bear with Bess. He’s constantly in communication with her wants to win her approval, asks her for advice and looks to her as a beacon of light.
JEFFREY FRANK: Yeah. It was a really devoted to his family. You know, he wrote to his mother almost every day while he was while he was president. You hear the letters to his mother just didn’t stop. I think the day the day that Roosevelt died, he was he was in the midst of writing a letter to his mother. And those letters are extraordinary, I quote unquote, a lot of them in his letter. And he wrote to many wrote to Bess all the time. She was not always with him in Washington. She was she was she and she didn’t particularly like Washington. And she was okay. Living on Upper Connecticut Avenue when he was a senator. But when he was vice president and president, it was it wasn’t nearly as much fun. And she was she like to spend time in Missouri with her with her family.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: The reverence and respect that he has towards his mom when he becomes president. The first time she was on a plane, she’s 93. And you have a great picture in here. I think it was I think, you know, a beautiful picture of him helping his mother. You know, she was president, United States taking his mother, you know, carefully, her hand in her arm and escorting off the plane. And she has a scowl on her face. So, she wasn’t too happy if she would have known all these photographers were out there. Harry are there photographers? We should have stayed home. You know, these are pretty private people.
JEFFREY FRANK: It’s amazing when, when, when, when the war was when Germany surrendered, he called his mother. Yeah. And that was raising it was the reporter in the room. We could only hear her side of the conversation, but. Yes, Harry. Yes, that was good. How are you going to come home? Soon as. I guess I’m being careful, Harry. And it was wonderful. Yeah. He was a very, very devoted son and husband.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And father and father. You know, when he punched, he punched one news reporter who said who mocked Margaret singing was that.
JEFFREY FRANK: He didn’t punch him, but he threatened is he threatened to? And he said, you made it up, demanded an athletic supporter if I wanted to play the quite a letter that that letter should that you know, truly would have been protected by his staff. But his press secretary, who was a boyhood friend, had just died. So he was able to sneak out and put it in a mailbox, usually would have been in his outbox. Someone would have probably intercepted that would have gotten to the critic. Paul Hume who was the music critic of The Washington Post by the way, I met I knew Paul Hume I when I worked for The Washington Post. It was just after Paul who had retired, he would sort of show up like a ghost in the newsroom every now and then. I always wanted to ask him about that. I never did. I didn’t know I was going to be writing a book about Truman someday.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You were probably a pretty young guy when he was around there, right? You were going to poke around that one.
JEFFREY FRANK: A mere child, yeah.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So a little less thing up at the time we have. Why should and I have my own answer for this and I want to hear yours. Why should. Young people today read what many would consider ancient history. Why should they read this book? Especially given the backdrop of let me just make the point that, of course, a little more pointed for you, especially in light of how this country has bifurcated between right and left, conservative, liberal, left, right to the point one, should a young person read ancient history on The Trials of Harry S. Truman?
JEFFREY FRANK: It’s not so. It’s not so. It’s funny. It feels ancient. 70 years old, I think, because they can see they can see the connection between then and now. But they can also sort of see how this country was and how it could be again. We sort of left the word bipartisanship, of course. And in those days, it was there was such a thing. The Marshall Plan was passed. But George Marshall was not the only one. Many people came up with this idea. In fact, Truman wasn’t even briefed about the Marshall Plan until after Marshall gave his famous speech, but the support for it was pretty on both sides. It would never have happened without the support of Arthur Vandenberg, who was the who was the chairman of the Foreign Relations. He was a Republican from Michigan. He was the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, which happened after the disastrous 1946 election. And that was that one of the congressmen named Richard Nixon of California traveled to Europe after the war with he was with Christian Hertz, that finally committee. He was he was a congressman then. And he came back said, my gosh, the suffering we’re seeing, we have to support it. And this so there was there was a real bipartisan support for this for this kind of thing. When Truman tried to Iran in 1940 and he talked about the do-nothing Congress, but it was a do a lot of Congress. This was the Congress and, of course, the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. And so and so it was a just a different time. And people disagreed, but they did a hell didn’t hate each other. And also there was I think the other thing which we’ve talked about, not the first one to point out, but everyone could kind of agree on the same set of facts today. People don’t even agree on what really happened with the idea that no one could no one doubted the Truman won the election in 1948 or that Eisenhower won the election in 1952. It was it was a done deal. People saw the votes for the results of the Electoral College and that this happens today that anyone can even doubt a reality. That’s when that’s when people’s that’s when that’s when the country seems slightly in trouble. And I think we have to get to I don’t how we get past that. But if we can’t agree on reality, then we can’t reveal much of anything else. And that’s our big problem. And that was not an issue of when Truman was president. People could hate Truman or disagree with him. But everyone kind of agreed on what reality was.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I forgot where we were. This might be something that you wrote. I’ve read so much over the past week or so, so forgive me if I’m quoting something you might have written, but I was reading somewhere that said there were differences of opinion, but not differences of principles.
JEFFREY FRANK: Yeah, I’m not sure. But I mean, that’s absolutely true. I could bet that that that’s the truth. There really was there were a couple of there was there were always a couple of loonies in in Congress. But that was not but that was not the rule. That was the great exception. And people disagreed with it. Robert Taft, a conservative Republic of Ohio, really disagreed with a lot of what Truman did. He really opposed the Truman Doctrine, for example, which was which was basically coming to coming to the aid of any country that was threatened. Actually, it turns out Taft may have been right. Taft may be right. But I mean, if that’s the thing that may have led us into a lot of unnecessary conflicts, actually, George Kennan, who was in the State Department, actually weren’t worrying about that sort of thing, about worrying about commitments that we shouldn’t be making. And so. So there were disagreements, but they weren’t just disagreements of the principles of what this country stood for, our values and so on. And that’s it. And that’s that that’s absolutely true.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You know, there was.
JEFFREY FRANK: It’s something that we should treasure. And if you read this book, maybe you’ll remember what or what. You’ll read about what it was like and hope it can be that way. Again, we can we can all disagree about what we should do have done, but we shouldn’t disagree on what reality is and what this country should stand for.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: We were still all rowing the boat in the same direction. And it might have been differences of opinion based on based on region, based on party, based on ideas. But in terms of principles, everyone was more or less in agreement. You have the loony fringe, but put that aside. But they were in agreement on what was the right thing to do and what was in the best interests of this country.
JEFFREY FRANK: Right. I mean, speaking on that to bring today’s issues into it here. Here’s this. Especially here’s Liz Cheney, one of the most conservative members of Congress. Everybody, Democrats love her. Well, some Republicans are. Why? Because she’s because she’s integrity. Just a simple integrity. She started saying what I believe and what she believes. And that’s enough. That’s enough for a lot of people. And when I say that I’ve been a Democrat, a Republican, that’s true. I voted for Bill Clinton and then I voted for Bob Dole. I mean, I think people about that’s how I think that’s how we all were at one point. But perhaps not anymore.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, not anymore. Yeah, that is true. That is true. Folks, the name of the book is The Trials of Harry S. Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945-1953. And by the way, I learned something else. The “S” does stand for something.
JEFFREY FRANK: Well, yeah. I mean, it refers to two grandparents, so it could be one of two people. And it’s true, but and I got lots of letters saying there’s no period. Yes, there is a period. Truman used the period most of the time in the archives, and the independence assured me that the period is the correct way to go. Harry S. Truman.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: There was something we learned in school. Harry S. Truman. The S didn’t stand for anything, but he wanted to put that in there with his no period. And then when I read this and I saw the period you put that run on the cover, the period was there, and the s did stand for something. It wasn’t just a placeholder. How long did it take you to write, by the way?
JEFFREY FRANK: The whole thing, probably too close to seven years, but that’s from writing, researching, traveling. I mean, it just takes a lot takes a lot of time. And then you get well, then you get caught up. You get caught up. You want to and you want to double check things and triple check things and then you and then you find you get to be I. One of the people I got interested in was a guy who was forgotten by history. Brian McMahon Yeah. From, from Connecticut. He was a he was he was actually a Roman Catholic who just might have been the first Roman Catholic president. He died very young of a very virulent, aggressive cancer. But he was the one who created the Atomic, who was the author of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. And so, yeah, there was there was it was a different it was a different era. And that was also that area that was fun. That was it was it was fun getting into that. And so getting into these detours was it was part of what like I found his daughter and I to talk about. So I got some sense of what like when was like when they lived that they lived in this neighborhood in Washington where Truman Trueblood would come by and have coffee with. It was a different, different era. And that was really, really, really interesting. I, I had lunch with Dean Acheson son David. It was and I was he was he was he was wonderful. He, he, he must’ve been about 93 or so when I met him. He, his son, he died a couple of years ago. But he was a he was a great source of sort of firsthand things. He told me about going about a party at his at his father’s farm, where Truman came out on a Sunday afternoon, went swimming with Billy, all Randall, they all went to the lake and so on. That was a so that’s what that’s about. That’s what that was the fun of that. That’s why I took a long time. And then the travels to the travels, the travels going to different parts of the country and so on.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, well, great super. When did this book come out? How recent.
JEFFREY FRANK: Marcia was March 8, so three and a half months ago. So, brand new.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Ok, great. I wish you continued success. Really, really great stuff. The name, folks, is The Trials of Harry S. Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945-1953 by the great Jeffrey Frank. Jeff, thanks so much for being on the show and continued success. Really great job.
JEFFREY FRANK: Charles. It was really, really enjoyable. Thanks a lot for having me.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: My pleasure.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Charles Mizrahi Show. If you’re a new listener, welcome! If you’ve been listening for a while, we’re glad to have you back. Either way, we’d love to know what you think of the show. Please leave a review if you listen on Apple Podcasts. Reviews make it easier for others to find the show. You can also see the video of the interview on The Charles Mizrahi Show channel on YouTube.
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